A Walk on the Moon

© T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is presenting the new musical, A Walk on the Moon, May 6 through May 21, based on the 1999 movie. The story takes place in the Catskills, summer of 1969. Neil Armstrong is set to take his iconic moonwalk, the Woodstock music festival is imminent, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations roil the nation’s streets, and second-wave feminism is on the rise. It’s a time of ferment, a time of questioning, a time when the old ways, the old ideas seemed disposable.

In the opening scene, Pearl Kantrowitz (a role superbly performed by the powerhouse Jackie Burns), her husband Marty (played by Jonah Platt), their teenage daughter Alison (Carly Gendell), young son, and Marty’s mother Lillian (Jill Abramovitz) arrive at their annual vacation destination, Dr. Fogler’s Bungalows.

The family spends every summer there with the same quartet of couples and the same routine. During the week, the women relax, cook the meals, and watch the kids, while the men return to the city to work. While the routine is comfortable, Pearl has glimmerings that life is passing her by.

Into these lazy, predictable days enters someone completely different, Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene). He’s the Blouse Man, and the attraction between him and Pearl is immediate. You know she’s in trouble. Perhaps you can predict where her personal journey will take her, but plenty of drama and honest emotion awaits.

The musical is stuffed with song, and Pearl reveals her mixed guilt and desire through the heart-rending “Ground Beneath My Feet.” While I appreciated the live seven-piece orchestra and the clever and melodic songs, they tended toward the belt-it-out style, which might have worked even better interspersed with additional quieter numbers. Marty’s singing to his daughter, “We Made You” is a lovely example.

Even though the show’s run time is two and a half hours, there’s never a lag. The excellent cast of fourteen assures something is always going on, from the four couples’ fun dancing, to the energetic mahjongg games, to the teenagers testing their wings. The skillful use of projections establishes the verdant camp, the mesmerizing night sky, the psychedelia of Woodstock, and the blackness of a really black adolescent mood. Actual news footage of the moon landing provides an indelible sense of the moment.

A Walk on the Moon is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Check the website for current information on NBPAC’s covid requirements.

Weekend Movie Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

The Goodbye Coast

In Joe Ide’s newest crime thriller, The Goodbye Coast, he abandons his popular crime-solver Isaiah Quintabe, in favor of a twenty-first century private investigator Philip Marlowe (yes!) who’s working on two compelling missing persons cases at once. 

In his acknowledgements, Ide quotes Chandler himself, who once claimed there are no classics of crime and detection fiction, but Ide maintains that Chandler came closer than anyone. He was Ide’s original writing inspiration, and that of many other writers, and attracted millions of fans. Movies made from his books helped define film noir, with Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe an indelible representation of the cynical, world-weary p.i. of hardboiled crime fiction.

Undertaking to write what’s billed as a modern version of such an icon is more than a bit cheeky. How well did Ide do? He succeeds to some extent—he has the cynicism and wisecracking down and the occasional skewering of the Establishment. He leaves most of the hard drinking to a character invented for this story, Philip’s father, Emmet Marlowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on leave to dry out after the death of his wife, Philip’s mother. The modern Marlowe shares his namesake’s tendency for insubordination, which cost him his place in the police academy and led him to a mentorship with low-rent private detective, Basilio Ignacia.

Marlowe’s new client is fading movie star Kendra James, whose husband Terry was shot dead on the beach in front of their Malibu home a few weeks earlier. Terry was a failed movie producer desperately trying for one last big score. His seventeen-year-old daughter Cody has gone missing, and Kendra wants Marlowe to find her.

Before long Basilio drops another case in Marlowe’s lap—unwanted, but there it is. A woman has flown in from London to search for her son Jeremy, kidnapped by her ex-husband.

The theme of parents and children—and how these relationships can go terribly wrong, warping a person’s actions and reactions—permeates the book. In the case of Ren and her kidnapped son, the ex-husband is the problem, and she’s become monomaniacal about getting Jeremy back; in the case of Kendra and Cody, neither has a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies. No way could a healthy relationship evolve. Marlowe gets along with his dad, mostly, because he’s repressed his anger about his father’s neglect of his mother as she was dying. Emmet’s drinking shows he feels that shortcoming too, of course.

While you can chuckle at the relentless snark of Cody, only because it’s not directed at you, and enjoy the more civilized jibes of Ren (who’s English, after all), neither one of these females listens to Marlowe or takes his advice. Stay in your car until I get there? Not a chance. Don’t go there by yourself? Already out the door. Needless to say, their incautious behavior causes worlds of trouble.

Marlowe uses his connections in the film industry, mostly in the form of past clients who are still speaking to him, to try to get a lead on Jeremy. Once he’s found Cody, he’s suspicious of her stepmother’s intentions and stashes her at his dad’s house until he can sort things out. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated and deadly than he anticipates, involving the Russian mob, Armenian hitmen, a Bosnian assassin, and Cody’s brother, a gay minor league baseball player.

As a big fan of Ide’s I.Q. books, I think he misses the mark here. There are just too many violent confrontations and climaxes. It’s like a movie with endless car chases and shootouts. Non-stop action is tiring. At the end, I felt like somebody just beat me up.

In a rare period of quiet near the story’s end, Marlowe takes some time to review his notes and comes up with a theory about who killed Terry that he thinks holds water. His conclusions come very close to violating a basic principle of mystery-writing: Don’t introduce new clues at the end of the story. At least two pieces of his explanation relied on information I did not have. Possibly I missed these elements in the reading, but I don’t think so.

Finally, one of the pleasures of reading Chandler is his unforgettable deployment of metaphor. (My favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Ide is quite skilled with the language, and writes in an effective, forceful way, but, as this is a homage, I expected a few high-flown metaphors. Maybe they wouldn’t feel right in 2022, but I missed them.

Order here from Amazon
Or Shop your local indie bookstore

Baipás

The nation’s English-language premiere of acclaimed Puerto Rican artist Jacobo Morales’s play Baipás, directed and choreographed by, Julio Monge, is currently on stage at George Street Playhouse. It premiered March 4 and runs through March 20 in New Brunswick, N.J.

Live theater has a special role in presenting real, flesh-and-blood people in challenging situations and seeing how they react, live, and, in the process, challenging audiences as well. Baipás (pronounced BI-pass) does that in ninety minutes while managing to be entertaining, romantic, sorrowful, and even funny.

A big part of its success can be attributed to the two performers: Maggie Bofill as Lorena and Jorge Luna as Antonio. They meet in a strange place—a bare room that might be somewhere in a hospital. They are decidedly human in an abstract space.The most recent event she remembers is being on a respirator after a serious suicide attempt, and what he remembers is undergoing coronary bypass surgery. From time to time they are aware of their “real” bodies, wherever they are: His heartbeat stops, to be revived by a kiss from her; she takes a breath on her own. In these moments the play captures the terror and confusion of hospitalization.

Lorena and Antonio wonder about the room. What is it? A waiting room for death? Who are these people watching them (us)? Among us, they believe they see people from their past—a dead ex-wife, a dead mother. Occasionally speaking about and to the audience is odd at first, yet makes us complicit in their search for understanding.

They circle each other like wary housecats, each taking a turn expressing guilt, fear, hope. Lorena repeatedly voices her mantra, “live in the moment,” but can’t quite do it, suffused by regrets and by curiosity about the future. Pre-heart attack, Antonio’s life was a mess. You’re relieved when they finally come into the moment to dance a love song, a bolero. Adrift in a sea of uncertainty, they find their moment in the dance.

The story unfolds in a bare, elevated box, decorated occasionally with projections that mirror what is going on inside Lorena and Antonio’s hearts. Mostly, there’s nothing there for them to hang onto except each other.

George Street should be congratulated for easing back into live-audience theater with such a complex, innovative, and memorable play. Author Morales is a poet, playwright, actor, and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, while director Monge was an artistic collaborator on the recent high-powered remake of West Side Story, a production on which George Street’s Artistic Director, David Saint, served as Associate Producer.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Pine Barrens Stratagem

New Jersey has hosted a run of excellent (and humorous) crime thrillers in the past year. The latest example is Ken Harris’s high-octane thriller, in which investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of 1943 crimes in rural southern New Jersey. The healthy young men were going to war, and they left behind quite a few pregnant girlfriends. Unfortunately, many families considered pregnant unmarried daughters an embarrassment, sent them away, kept them out of sight, or cut them off completely. If they and their babies disappeared, that may have seemed like the best outcome. One local police officer, Edward McGee, persisted in investigating these disappearances. When he disappeared too, the questions stopped.

This chilling history lesson is the prologue of The Pine Barrens Stratagem. From that point, the story fast-forwards to 2020. An unlikely crusader for justice—a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport—hears tantalizing threads of this story and decides it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix television series.

Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention being located 2700 miles from the scene of action and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. At least Davenport’s dramatic instincts are correct: it has all the makings of a compelling story.

Rockfish has something of a drinking problem—a trait he shares with the man who hired him—but it turns out he’s a good investigator, and it’s entertaining to see him smoothly work the system, talking his way into places to conduct interviews and making allies as well as enemies as his investigation proceeds. He has a wicked sense of humor (there’s a coarseness in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story goes along) and locks onto the politics of the people he meets, using their prejudices against them. They never realize what he’s doing, but I was laughing.

He teams up with Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, who turns out to be an excellent partner. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for this pair. Lots of people have a stake in keeping the lid on those long ago events—the local cops, the Mafia, the Catholic Church. Will Steve and Jawnie be able to evade them all?

Harris is a retiree from more than three decades as a cybersecurity executive with the FB, and his affection for his home state of New Jersey shines through. An epilogue reveals this is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July.

Order here from Amazon.
or shop your local indie bookstore

The Ones We Keep

Bobbie Jean Huff’s powerful new domestic drama, The Ones We Keep, is a real standout. It’s quite a testament for a debut author’s novel to be compared to the works of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain! I enjoyed it thoroughly, as much for the quality of the writing as the fully developed and compelling characters.

As the story begins, New Jerseyans Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys are vacationing at a Vermont lake. Olivia, returning from a walk, sees a police car leaving the resort, and two teenagers she encounters on the trail tell her a boy from New Jersey has drowned. All Olivia can think to do is run. If she gets away, if she hides, if she cuts off communication with her family and friends, she will never know which of her boys is lost. I have three sons, becomes her mantra.

Once she makes this break from what would have been her reality, it’s somehow better to keep that door firmly closed than to go back and face her loss. The story describes the accommodations she must make as she builds a new life, how Henry and the two remaining boys cope with her absence, how time moves on. Olivia’s choice may not be one most of us would make, but it is the choice she believes she has to make, in order to keep all her sons alive in her mind and for her own survival.

Bobbie Jean Huff and I are acquainted, having taken some of the same writing workshops together, and I couldn’t be more delighted that this novel turned out so beautifully!

Weekend Movie Pick: Parallel Mothers

Seeing Penélope Cruz in a movie’s cast-list is enough to make me want to see the film, and that decision-rule works flawlessly in Parallel Mothers (trailer), her latest work for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a moving tale about what’s lost and what’s found, about the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from (coincidentally, the theme of yesterday’s post about genetic genealogy).

In this film, Cruz plays Janis, a professional photographer who, after a photo session with a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) asks about the exhuming the graves of her great-grandfather and several other men murdered by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Such excavations take place under Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory, but Arturo says the arrangements will take time.

He and Janis begin an affair that, months later, leads Janis to a hospital maternity ward. She’s very happy to be pregnant and about to give birth. Not so, the frightened teenager Ana (Milena Smit), her hospital roommate. Janis gives Ana a lot of support that is not forthcoming from Ana’s mother, and they promise to stay in touch.

Arturo isn’t wild about the baby, and the future of his and Janis’s relationship is uncertain. Janis reconnects with Ana and engages her as a nanny. Soon she’s faced with a powerful moral dilemma, and both their lives are about to change profoundly.

When the film returns to the question of the exhumation, it can feel like someone in the projection booth switched up reels, but again, the subject is knowing where you came from, which Almodóvar illustrates in two completely different ways.

Cruz and Smit are wonderful as the new mothers, and the rest of the cast does well too. Quite entertaining, especially after recent disappointments (Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley). In Spanish, with subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 83%.

Who Are You, Really?

Being bitten by the genealogy bug gives you a ticket to the vast carnival midway of life, with all its delights, haunted houses, and proofs of strength. You can wander into any number of enticing alleyways, all in the name of “research.” Recently, I participated in a Zoom lecture by author Paul Joseph Fronczak who’s written books about his strange history, which was made into the CNN documentary, The Lost Sons.

Ten-year-old Paul Fronczak found some newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s hidden in the family attic. They described how a woman disguised as a nurse had kidnapped a day-old baby boy from the maternity ward of a Midwestern hospital.

Fifteen months later, a toddler boy was found abandoned in northern New Jersey, identified as the missing child, and returned to his parents. The stories he’d found were about him, Paul Fronczak. Although raised in a loving home, Paul always felt like an outsider. In later years, he convinced his parents to get a DNA test, to make sure he was really their missing child. Short answer: he was not. But who was he?

He embarked on a quest to find his biological parents and, if possible, the kidnapped Paul. Again, DNA provided answers as well as new questions. The author Paul’s birth name was Jack Rosenthal, and he was born in New Jersey. (Ironically, he’s grateful to have grown up in the Fronczak home, because the Rosenthal family “was a nightmare.”) Jack Rosenthal’s birth certificate revealed a new mystery. He had a twin sister, as yet unidentified. After six years of effort, Paul did find the Fronczak’s biological son, called Kevin, living in Michigan.

If the Fronczak case weren’t convoluted enough, The Washington Post (paywall) recently covered the story of the Bryntwick family of Montreal. Anne Bryntwick was a single mom in the 1950s, who for a decade had an occasional liaison with a man named Mike Mitchell. Apparently she saw him frequently enough, because, as her son Bob says, she gave birth like clockwork “every year, year and a half.”

Anne raised five children herself, but six of her babies disappeared. As DNA-testing became more popular, information on what happened to these babies began to appear when two of the adopted-out siblings found each other. And they found their brother Bob. All but one of the adopted-out siblings were raised as only children, and, even though they are now in their 70s, they enthusiastically embrace their new-found brothers and sisters.

It seems Mitchell, their father, was selling some of Anne’s babies for $10,000 apiece to U.S. and Canadian couples desperate for adoption. Laws at the time didn’t ban such sales, and poor, uneducated women like Anne were ripe for exploitation. Meanwhile, Mitchell was married to another woman, with whom he had eight more children.

“DNA doesn’t like, people lie,” says one of the adopted-out sisters. And lying was easier when people didn’t discuss certain things. Some families still don’t. The other Rosenthal children are not interested in meeting their brother Paul, nor are most of the Bryntwick half-siblings, children of the married couple. Both of these sagas are eye-popping reads!

True Identity by Paul Fronczak

Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

If you’re thinking “The Scottish Play” is so familiar, why sit through yet another production of it, even one directed by Joel Coen (trailer)? Well, think again. This is a story that greatly benefits from all of Coen’s noir sensibilities—from the dark portrayals by the protagonists to the look and feel he gives to the Scottish highlands and its stark castles. (Available on streaming)

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are in equipoise, as if personal strength were a zero-sum game. In the beginning, she’s strong and he’s weak, then he becomes strong in madness and she diminishes. In an exemplary cast, special mention must be made of Kathryn Hunter’s phenomenal work as the Witches. She is ungainly, crude, and sly. At one point the camera seems to capture her in the process of transforming into one of the ravens circling ominously overhead.

A striking moment occurs early in the film when Macbeth and Banquo approach the witch through the fog, and she stands on the other side of a pond, a black pillar with no reflection. The other two witches are invisible, but their reflection does appears in the pond. (this moment appears briefly in the trailer). It’s an image that shakes you out of your expectations. All is not as it should be. And then some.

This film is the product of a powerful artistic vision, from shooting it in an almost-square format (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to eliminate any distracting elements cluttering the periphery, to choosing stunning black and white, to Carter Burwell’s dark score. The castles are devoid of decoration and seem as cold as the hearts of their occupants. The mist-obscured crows, the dripping water, the knocking. Is that the sun shining through the fog, or is it the moon? Is it day or night?

Near the end, when Macbeth is on the battlements of Dunsinane, and Birnam wood is indeed about to come to him, fulfilling the Witch’s prophesy, he’s surrounded by fallen leaves, a visual reminder of his heart-wrenching speech about what might have been: “My way of life is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.”

Rotten Tomatoes  critics rating: 93%; audiences 80%.